Great spotted woodpeckers make themselves at home at some of our reserves across Scotland, and can be seen visiting gardens over winter to have a go at the feeders. RSPB Scotland’s Allie McGregor shares five facts about this great species.

Five facts about the Great Spotted Woodpecker

The great spotted woodpecker is one of only three species of woodpecker found in the United Kingdom.

The other two species we have are the lesser spotted woodpecker and the green woodpecker. Of these the great spotted woodpecker is the most widespread in Scotland, with no known lesser spotted woodpeckers breeding in Scotland.

woodpecker on tree

Great spotted woodpeckers make themselves known with their drumming, as opposed to birdsong.

Both male and female woodpeckers can be heard drumming to communicate throughout the first half of the year. They don’t just drum on wood – they have been known to use a variety of objects! Unpaired males drum up to 400 more times a day than paired males will.

They have evolved to avoid headaches.

I get a headache just thinking about how much headbanging these birds do! Woodpeckers avoid this because they have special adaptations to their beak and skull which help them absorb the shock.

Scientists believe there are three elements which help protect a woodpecker’s brain. Firstly, they have special bones with a sponge-like structure at some parts of their skull, which seems to distribute the force. Secondly, they have a unique bone, called the ‘hyoid' bone which wraps around the skull acting almost as if it were a seatbelt. Finally, the uneven lengths of their upper and lower beak appears to help to lower the load of impact that goes to the brain.

perched woodpecker

Their diet changes between the seasons

Woodpeckers love to feast on insects and larvae that they find in tree trunks. In winter, when insects are more scarce, they will rely on berries and nuts, and they are much more likely to be seen in gardens going for the peanuts in your feeders.

They also have a special way of eating…

Woodpeckers have a very unique tongue! It coils around the back of their skull and can be extended significantly in order to get at insect larvae. Great Spotted Woodpeckers sticky tongues can protrude about 4cm beyond the end of their bills.

woodpecker at a feeder